Fighting over “the dollar” has intensified during the past 30 days, raising questions about the future of a longtime source of food safety research funding. “The dollar” is the Beef Checkoff, the $1 added on to the transaction each time there is a bovine sale, from ranch to feedlot, or feedlot to slaughterhouse, etc. It may not sound like much, but the $1 checkoff has produced as much as $90 million for state and national beef promotion and research. All those extra bucks added to each transaction add up to benefit the beef industry in a generic way without reference to any specific producer. In 1992, those Beef Checkoff bucks hired the talent from the Leo Burnett Company and the performance of world-renowned actor Robert Mitchum to promote the classic marketing slogan: “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner.” And, since the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, the Beef Checkoff has funded food safety research, especially to help with the industry’s largely successful pushback against E. coli O157:H7 and, more recently, on challenges with Salmonella. It has also funded non-safety subjects such as flavor or nutrition. Beef safety research did also decline in recent years because of reductions in U.S. herds and therefore fewer transactions. The Beef Checkoff is no stranger to controversy. Its existence was last challenged in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality on a 6-3 vote. Since then, it has seen its fair share of audits, studies, congressional inquiries, and general criticism. A couple of years ago, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack decided that a second Beef Checkoff might be good idea as a way of uniting the industry behind the original checkoff. The situation now is more serious than ever. Among recent developments:
- U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-NJ, and Mike Lee, R-UT, on July 14 dropped S. 3201 into the bill hopper. The Booker-Lee bill “is intended to bring much needed transparency and accountability to the federal government’s commodity check off programs,” Booker said. The bill would prohibit checkoff programs from contracting with any organization that lobbies on agricultural policy, prohibit employees and agents of checkoff boards from engaging in activities that may involve a conflict of interest, prohibit anticompetitive activity, and require transparency and periodic audits by the USDA Inspector General and Government Accountability Office.
- Sen. Lee, meanwhile, has introduced S. 3200 to make all of the commodity programs, including the Beef Checkoff, entirely voluntary. The Lee bill would affect commodity programs for cotton, potatoes, eggs, wheat and wheat research, floral research and consumer information, and programs for dairy, honey, pork, watermelon, pecan, mushrooms, lime, soybeans, milk, cut flowers and greens, sheep, canola, rapeseed, kiwifruit, popcorn, Hass avocado, and beef.
- USDA kicked off a 60-day comment period July 15 on a change to the Beef Checkoff to allow assessments to be paid to a qualified state board or council to be redirected to the national program known as the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. Assessments are usually collected by the state boards, which retain a portion of the assessment and forward the remainder to the national board. Not all states permit assessments, and the change will allow those that don’t to redirect them to the national board.
The language in the Booker-Lee bill is best understood if informed about the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board’s relationship to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), or the Kansas Beef Council’s reliance on the Kansas Livestock Association. Booker-Lee would prevent checkoff funds from contracting with the industry groups that also lobby or engage in other typical association activities. In a July 14 letter endorsing both S. 3201 and 3200 and signed by Bill Bullard, chief executive of the producer-only cattle trade association known at R-CALF, the NCBA is called out. S. 3201 “addresses the ongoing problem of cross-subsidization of checkoff and policy activities, as exemplified by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s (‘NCBA’s’) ability to materially offset and subsidize its policy-related costs and expenses with checkoff funds,” the Bullard letter states. However, the USDA Inspector General in 2013 found those types of charges to be groundless. Numerous state cattle groups allied with R-CALF and other community farm organizations have signed on to Bullard’s letter, along with some environmental groups which are usually aligned against agriculture.
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